St. Pete Beach to sue its former lawyers over fees

Published Sept. 14, 2016

ST. PETE BEACH — After spending about $2 million in legal fees to defend against multiple legal actions challenging its development rules, the city wants a large chunk of its money back and is going to court to get it.

The City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to file a malpractice lawsuit against its former law firm, Bryant Miller Olive, that will seek restitution of the $625,000 the city spent for opposing attorney fees, as well as an unknown amount of potential damages.

One of those cases originally involved alleged city encroachment and land-taking of beachfront property owned by the late Chet Chmielewski, and the other involved resident James Anderson's challenge to the city's development regulations.

During litigation of those cases, the commission met in closed session with its BMO lawyers to discuss the cases.

When lawyers for Chmielewski and Anderson were denied transcripts of those meetings, they sued, claiming the city had violated the Sunshine Law.

Though the city prevailed in Circuit Court, it lost both cases before the Second District Court of Appeal and was forced to reimburse Chmielewski's and Anderson's legal fees.

The city subsequently fired BMO, hired a new city attorney, Andrew Dickman, commissioned an investigation of BMO's actions, and now has hired a trial attorney, James Rolfes, to pursue the malpractice case against BMO.

Dickman said Tuesday that Rolfes "has concluded the city has a valid case against BMO."

The commission's vote came just weeks before the statute of limitations was slated to run out on the malpractice action. The city will be seeking damages against both BMO and the individual attorneys who represented the city.

Though they were not named, those attorneys include Susan Churuti and Mike Davis.

Ben Hill, an attorney defending BMO, said Wednesday that the law firm did nothing wrong.

"At the time of the meetings, there was no case law. Now we have conflicting judicial decisions," Hill said, stressing that "BMO exercised its best judgment at the time."

Hill also said if BMO wins in the city's malpractice action, the city might be liable for BMO's attorney's fees. If the city wins, it will be responsible only for an estimated $50,000 in court fees. Rolfes has taken the case on contingency, which means his time will be paid out of any final court award or settlement.